Contagion – An accurate portrayal of a real pandemic scenario
A contagious disease becoming a pandemic and affecting the lives of billions across the world – sounds a little too familiar, doesn’t it? Not a unique concept in the times we are collectively facing in the world. Still, this probably was a bold new idea to present on the big screen for many parts of the world back in 2011 when the film Contagion was released. Today, a lot of people are being drawn to this film again – years after its release – as its theme has suddenly become relevant to everyone, no matter which country they call home.
The film depicts the outbreak, the endemicization and the bitter aftermath of an infectious disease caused by the fictitious virus MEV-1. It touches upon various unseen aspects of this brutal and unforgiving process, even as scientists, doctors and authorities try to fight it with all their might. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (of Traffic fame) tries to put in too many stories in a run-time of just over hundred minutes. There is a common man whose wife is cheating on him, a WHO epidemiologist, many doctors and scientists, a lying social influencer and army chief and several others who find space, however tight, in this film.
An all-star but not enough screen time
The cast includes a line of Hollywood biggies like Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne among others – all of them Oscar nominees or winners, and equally great artists in their own right. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see enough of any of them due to the format of the story. Some of them have short screen times because, spoiler alert, their characters succumb to the lethal viral infection. Others just become victims of a poor screenplay.
The movie suffered in the editing room which is a little disappointing seeing as it was edited by Stephen Mirrione, who has been nominated for many Academy Awards (and even won one for his work on Traffic, also with Soderbergh). The editing is painfully hasty at times, probably owing to the vastness of the ground that the director sought to cover in a single feature. But then, perhaps the abrupt editing is brilliant in its own way, trying to convey to the audience how things can change so unexpectedly and unimaginably in a matter of a few days or weeks when an infectious disease spreads across the world.
Some things would have been better left out
Some things just seem unnecessary when you look at the big picture that the film is trying to present. Like when Cotillard’s character is kidnapped as bait to get a batch of vaccines delivered to her kidnappers on a priority basis, she grows quite attached to the village in which she is being held. This subplot didn’t amalgamate well with the rest of the story. You also see several long montages when there is only a somber background score to support shot after shot depicting the transmission of the disease and its aftermath, which gets a little tedious after a while.
It seems like I am only badmouthing the movie. But don’t sue me just yet! We do see some nice work by cinematographer Peter Andrews. In long sequences that focus on the surfaces and objects that were touched and contaminated by those infected with the contagious (and fictional) MEV-1 virus, the horror that the story is trying to forewarn is quite clear. The camera lingering on a glass left by Paltrow’s character, who is infected, at an airport bar, or on the door pushed by Damon’s character’s stepson (also infected) in his school instills an unknown fear in the audience.
Damon gives an impressive performance, especially at a time in the movie when he is particularly vulnerable, having lost his wife (Paltrow) and young stepson, he unveils some raw emotions for the audience. Jude Law plays a conspiracy theorist and somewhat of a social media influencer, who is corrupting the minds of his followers by lying about formulations that can cure the deadly disease. He is eventually caught, but by that time, the damage is already done. This brings home an important point which transcends the core theme of the movie – misinformation on any subject and in any context can have serious implications particularly when it is fueled by people who hold any semblance of power over the masses.
Contagion earns praise for accuracy
The accuracy of the scientific process shown in the film is a surprisingly pleasant detour from the somewhat fallacious depictions that Hollywood is often accused of. I also found the ending to be quite fitting, showing how it all started after the audience has already seen the unfortunate after-effects.
All said and done, I wouldn’t say I hated the movie, only that I had much higher expectations from it, given an excellent cast and a masterful director. Is it an important theme to present to the world? I say yes, and a resounding one at that. But was it executed with proportional diligence and creativity? I will have to say no. Dropping a few unnecessary subplots in the story would have helped improve the continuity and shamelessness of the movie. I also think that this idea would have worked so much better in the form of a TV show or a web series.
Irrespective of my opinion of the overall effectiveness of Steven Soderbergh’s endeavor, I do think that Contagion does a great job of explaining just how quickly a disease can spread, particularly in the early stages when the world lacks sufficient knowledge of the enemy it is fighting against. In the end, it is science and the perseverance to deduce, develop and apply it that wins the war against MEV-1 in Contagion. Perhaps, instead of being frightened and shocked after watching Contagion, we should look at it as the harbinger of some much needed hope in the grim times that we are currently witnessing.
Contagion received a second wind with the Corona outbreak, and while it is not an excellent movie it does give an accurate portrayal of what a pandemic looks like.
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